Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Peter Fonda, An Easy Rider Who Chose the Road Not Taken

The death of Peter Fonda seems like one more reminder that the Sixties are now long gone. I vividly recall going out to dinner, circa 1970, with my husband-to-be in a trendy bistro on the Sunset Strip. To us the back room, overlooking the lights of the city below, was the height of elegance. So it was a curious moment when some well-dressed young women started excitedly unrolling a huge poster. It was an almost-life-sized image of Fonda and Dennis Hopper, astride their choppers, decked out in their Easy Rider duds. That wasn’t a poster I’d want to display in my own home, but it seemed a fair encapsulation of what was in a lot of youthful minds as the Sixties faded away.

Peter Fonda, son of the iconic Henry, began his film career in the romantic comedy, Tammy and the Doctor (1963). But before Easy Rider (1969) made the tall, lanky Fonda a spokesman for the Counterculture, he had already become a Sixties icon as the chopper-riding Heavenly Blues in The Wild Angels (1966), Roger Corman’s gritty celebration of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang. (Sample dialogue: “We want to be free to ride our machines without being hassled by the Man! And we want to get loaded!”)  Fonda was then an enthusiastic supporter of the drug scene. He helped the fundamentally strait-laced Corman shed his inhibitions by shoving a kilo of marijuana into Roger’s mailbox as a Christmas gift. And when Corman followed up the notoriety of The Wild Angels with an hallucinogenic LSD film (1967), The Trip, Fonda demanded that Roger do research by dropping acid himself. (Roger’s one and only LSD trip, which took place in California’s Big Sur, has become the basis for The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes, a screenplay that Corman alumnus Joe Dante is still hoping to shoot.)

Peter Fonda described the genesis of Easy Rider in a 1969 issue of Take One magazine. Staying at a Canadian hotel for a motion-picture exhibitors’ convention, he happened to study a publicity shot of himself and Bruce Dern riding their choppers in The Wild Angels. Staring at the iconographic photo, Fonda got an idea: “Man, yeah, that’s the image . . .  a dude who rides a silver bike and turns everybody on and rides right off again.” As the movie’s plot evolved in his head, he decided, “Let’s get to Mardi Gras in the film, great time, we’ll have a lot of free costumes and shit like that, a real Roger Corman number where we don’t have to pay.” Easy Rider was produced by Fonda in 1969. He and Dennis Hopper (a longtime friend who had been featured in The Trip) wrote the screenplay, along with novelist Terry Southern; the roles played by Fonda, Hopper, and Jack Nicholson were to make them all stars. Corman, aware of the developing project, tried to help get it AIP backing.

Sam Arkoff, the creative head of American International Pictures, has admitted that AIP was ready to invest $340,000 in Easy Rider, but balked at Hopper’s plan to direct the film himself. Arkoff and company believed that Roger Corman, with his low-budget track record, would be the best man for the job. Hopper, of course, proved them wrong. But while Corman had no part in the finished film, it very much reflects his spirit and style. 

It was Fonda and Hopper, though, who got the kudos. They shared a screenplay Oscar for Easy Rider, and Fonda also collected an acting nod for his sensitive 1997 role in Ulee’s Gold. He’ll be missed.

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